When I was younger and frighteningly optimistic, I decided to try a little experiment in living off the land. Considering the fact that I had absolutely no prior gardening experience, I figured, people have been doing this for centuries and so it would be easy enough to try. After all, how hard could it be?
But somewhere in the back of my mind, old Bible stories rattled about in my head. Something about a man named Job, and other stories of Egypt and plagues and pestilence. But I brushed them all aside. I would make this work. I was young, stupid and invincible.
And also, I was not alone. There’s something about gardening out in the county. You end up making a lot of new friends of the furry and hungry sort. The first one to show up was the dog. He was all skin and bones and pathetic and friendly. He recognized a sucker when he saw one and quickly made himself at home. Once you feed him, he’s yours.
And one dog wasn’t so bad, but then he made friends with the other dogs that lived down the road and I ended up with a pack of friendly dogs visiting on a daily basis. And that wasn’t so bad either until I dug up the garden. And he discovered grub worms.
Now I’ve heard that grub worms are actually considered a delicacy in many countries. My furry friend loved them. In fact, he loved them so well that he taught all of his fellow dog friends to dig for them as well. It didn’t bother me much while I was digging up the garden, but it did cause a few problems after I planted it.
Even worse, I introduced him to tennis balls. He loved them. He loved burying them in the yard. And the first time I dug up the potatoes, he discovered a new type of ball. For the rest of the summer, I would find the garden littered with potatoes punctured with teeth marks.
The tomatoes were nearly as bad. There’s just something about sitting on the porch relaxing when you watch a dog go by carrying your garden fresh produce off into the woods. And once they’ve slobbered on it, you really don’t feel like frying it up for dinner.
Pestilence and Plagues
Just when I thought that the dogs were the worst that could happen, the worms descended. And not just any worms. These were small, crunchy all-consuming worms. Down here, we call them armyworms. I’ve heard other people call them millipedes and other names that are not repeatable. They came in hordes and descended almost overnight. It was like one of the plagues of Egypt.
Apparently, they would come in waves every few years and I was lucky enough to experience them in person. They climbed over the porch, up the sides of the house, across the floor of the house, in through the windows and treated themselves to the vegetable garden.
Every morning, I would get up, sweep out the house, dump the nasty little creatures out the back door and then go out into the garden and pick them off the squash plants. After about a week of this, I didn’t even cringe anymore. This was war.
Desperate Situations Call For Desperate Measures
No matter how many worms I picked off the plants, a dozen more were there to take their place. Finally, in desperation, I gathered the courage to try the ultimate organic bug repellent ever created. I had heard about it but never had the stomach to try it. But as my squash blossoms withered under the onslaught of armyworms and my squash plants began to rot on the vine, I was desperate. Bug juice it was.
In case you’ve never tried bug juice, it’s a fairly simple recipe. Gross, but simple. You merely take the bug that is eating your garden, pulverize it, dilute it with water, then spray the resulting mixture on the plants. When the bugs come to eat the plants, they smell the scent of their compatriots decomposing on the vine and decide to go to a more hospitable location.
It worked. And after creating bug juice, even the grub worms don’t bother me anymore.
Dreaming of Fresh Corn on the Cob
Needless to say, after the destruction of the potatoes, tomatoes and squash plants, my hopes of a full meal were diminishing. But I had my favorite crop of all, the corn.
It had successfully survived the dogs and the bugs and had grown to a gorgeous height. I was growing field corn, great for cornmeal and creamed corn, and it grew extremely tall. I could stand beside it and raise my arms and it still towered several feet above me. It was wonderful.
A week before the corn was ripe, I was away from home for one night. Just one night. To this day, I can still remember coming home. I pulled into the drive and got out of my car.
The destruction was indescribable. A tornado had touched down in the center of my corn field. Every stalk of corn was broken down and scattered on the ground like a crop circle gone wild.
I checked the house and the rest of the garden, but everything else was in order. Why would a tornado only touch down on one spot?
And then I saw it. On the porch and all over the porch were muddy footprints. Small, muddy footprints with little muddy claw marks. They were too small and delicate to be dog prints. Oh, no, these were another form of pestilence.
I went to the cornfield and examined the damage. Each ear of corn had been carefully peeled back with muddy little feet and each kernel of corn had been sheared from the cob. It wasn’t a tornado. It was raccoons. I nearly burst into tears.
And then I sat up all night with a shotgun in my lap and waited for them to come back. But they didn’t.
And I remembered the story of Job, as translated by the horror novelist Stephen King. “‘When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, ‘Why, God? Why me?’ and the thundering voice of God answered, ‘There’s just something about you that pisses me off.’ ”
To me, that seemed to sum up my gardening experience in a nutshell.
But still, I persist. It gets better with practice. You learn ways to outsmart the pestilence and train the dogs. Weather becomes a favorite topic of conversation because you’re watching for storms, waiting for rain and preparing for frost.
It brings you back to nature in a way that few other things can. This world is a wild, wonderful place full of life and creeping crawling things (most of whom eat the garden). But, if you tend your garden well and rise up to the challenge, there’s plenty of food left over for you, too.
It doesn’t get much better than this. That’s what I tell myself when I slice into a fresh, heirloom tomato just picked from the vine. After all, in the words of Will Rogers, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”